India is a vast country with a population of more than 1 billion. The climate cultures are so diverse in India that even within one state, several cultural differences exist. The major specialty of Indian cuisine is not only due to this wide diversity but also due to the variations in the use of several types of aromatic Indian spices. Vegetarianism has deep roots in the making of Indian cuisine and even the preparations of non-vegetarian dishes are based on this model of cooking.
Major items used in Indian cooking are grains, pulses, vegetables, herbs, and spices. The cooking techniques and the ingredients vary from one region to another. A broad presentation of Indian cuisine is provided here, as it is not possible to include all the details on taste of India in one single article. The Indian cuisine can be basically classified into four major regional varieties, Northern, Western, Eastern, and Southern, though wide differences exist within each region.
The spices produced in India have been sought by all Western nations for several centuries that go before the birth of Jesus Christ. Greeks and Romans have been known to have purchased Indian spices in large volumes in ancient times. The spice trade between India and the Western world resulted in the birth of famous explorers and seafarers like Vasco da Gama. Even Christopher Columbus, who discussed America and the Caribbean Islands initially set out in search of India. This is the reason why the Caribbean Islands are called today as West Indies, due to the assumption by Columbus that this area was India, which was proved false later.
North Indian Cuisine
North Indian cuisine is normally known for major usage of dairy products, apart from flat, bread-type of items prepared from wheat powder, known as roti, which are dry baked on a griddle or deep fried in oil. Chicken and lamp meat is used by non-vegetarians but beef is generally avoided, as cows are considered as sacred animals.
Within the North Indian food, the sub-sections are Punjabi cuisine, Kashmiri cuisine, Mughlai cuisine, Awadhi cuisine, Rajasthan cuisine, Sindhi cuisine, Uttar Pradesh cuisine, Bihari cuisine, and Bhojpuri cuisine. Snack items like samosa, kachori, pakoda, and bhujiya, sweets termed as mithai, such as jalebi, peda, gulab jamun, ras malai, laddu, barfi, halwa, falooda, and kulfi, and pickles known as achar, prepared from vegetables such as mango, lime, tomato, onion, etc. are the major items in North Indian cuisine.
East Indian Cuisine
The specialty of East Indian food is its sweets. Many of the sweets that are famous all over India, particularly in Northern India, have originated from the two states in this region, West Bengal and Orissa. Traditional Bengal, Assam, and Orissa food items are spiced in a delicate manner with cumin seeds, mustard seeds, green chillies, and poppy seeds. The main dishes of this region include pasty, fried, vaporized, and thin spicy preparations, generally terms as curries. They are eaten with rice. Even the cuisine of Bangladesh is generally very similar to that of West Bengal. Fish items predominate in the non-vegetarian food.
South Indian Cuisine
South Indian food items are dominated by rice items. The staple food is rice, eaten with gravy items, such as sambar, rasam, kozhambu, etc. that have tamarind juice as the base material in which chilly powder, cumin seed powder, pepper and jeera powder, and turmeric powder are added along with other spices for taste and flavor. The mixture of these items vary from one item to another and are different for each of the four states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. A connoisseur of Indian cuisine can easily identify gravy items like sambar and mention the state or region of their origin, just by tasting them. Fried vegetables are used as side dishes for rice mixed with the gravy items and curd rice with pickles is a common food. Use of coconut and coconut oil predominate the preparations of Kerala.
The breakfast items of South India, such as idly, dosa, vada, poori, bonda, and bajji have become famous in many foreign countries. They are consumed with side dishes of chutneys. Special rice preparations such as coconut rice, lemon rice, tomato rice, tamarind rice, etc. are other favored items of this region. The non-vegetarian dishes include chicken, lamp and fish items. Seafood is highly popular in the coastal areas of these four states. Biryani is a boiled mixture of rice, vegetables, meat, and ground spices that has been introduced by the Muslims to South India and it is a very popular food item in the entire region.
Western Indian Food
The food items of Western India are typically categorized as Maharashtrian, Gujarati, and Goan preparations. The coastal areas of these three states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Goa mainly use seafood as staple eating items. The interior regions include millet and sorghum along with rice and wheat items in their food. Pav Bhaji, which is a combination of Western bread and Indian curry, is highly popular in Maharashtra and this food has spread to the other states of India also. This food item is used both during breakfast and lunch hours. Gujarati cuisine is mainly vegetarian consisting of roti, rice, mildly spiced gravy items, and sweetened curd. Sweets are part of Gujarati meals and Gujarati sweets have also become famous in many parts of India.
Spreading of Indian Cuisine to Other Countries
The migration of Indians to several foreign countries has brought their food items also to these countries. A survey conducted in the United States in 2007 revealed that more than 1,200 food products of Indian origin have entered the country since 2000. The British Standards Agency reported that the volume of Indian food industry in Great Britain exceeded £2.3 billion, serving nearly 2.5 million British people each week, and accounting for about two-thirds of eating out budgets. Many European countries have also witnessed the mushrooming of Indian restaurants.
South East Asia has adopted Indian cuisine from ancient times. Food items of countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia have been heavily influenced by Indian food items. The Indian food preparations have gained ground in Gulf countries also, due to the employment of Indians in large numbers in many countries in West Asia.